It's long been known to neuroscience that stressful situations trigger a fight/flight response. This is useful in life-threatening situations but less so in business, where a cool head works best in a crisis.

The fight/flight response tells your brain and nervous system to take immediate physical action. At work, that's most likely to manifest itself via an emotional explosion or storming out of the room. Those reactions only make a bad situation worse.

In other words, a fight/flight response at work is a failure to appropriately gauge the seriousness of a situation. Your brain is releasing chemicals intended to save your life during a bear attack--when all that's really happening is standard workplace bullsh*t.

An optimistic attitude makes it less likely you'll jump into fight/flight, because you're less likely to interpret a situation as a dire disaster. As Jon Pratlett, a pioneer in using neuroscience in leadership training, says:

The way you explain setbacks, mistakes, and disappointments to yourself can dramatically affect your outcomes. Whether your thoughts are pessimistic or optimistic will affect the choices you make and actions you take.

It is therefore in your interest to cultivate an optimistic attitude about failure, because it reduces your emotional need to have a fight/flight reaction. That frees you to make better decisions, especially when things are happening quickly.

To cultivate an optimistic attitude about failure, you must change your inner dialogue so that it characterizes failure as impersonal, impermanent, avoidable, and limited rather than personal, permanent, inevitable, and pervasive.

1. Don't take failure personally.

Pessimists tend to take failure personally. They believe that the problems are the result of who they are rather than what they did. "I'm a born loser."

Optimists tend to take failure philosophically. They see problems as puzzles they must solve to succeed in the future. "What must I do differently?"

2. Treat failure as a temporary event.

Pessimists tend to see failure as permanent. They believe that trying after you've failed is beating your head against a brick wall. "That didn't work, so why bother?"

Optimists tend to see failure as temporary. They believe that failure is a signal to try a different approach based upon what they've learned. "That didn't work, but this might."

3. Take responsibility for your failures.

Pessimists blame their failures on fate. They believe their failures are the inevitable result of outside forces that they cannot control. "It was bad luck."

Optimists focus on what they could have done differently. They believe that failure results from their mistakes within the context of what's possible. "I played my hand poorly."

4. Keep failure in perspective.

Pessimists bloat failure out of proportion. The failure seems so huge to them that everything else in life becomes unimportant. "Why do these things always happen to me?"

Optimists see failure as limited in scope. They see a failure as a bump or an obstacle on the road to success. "I learned a tough lesson, but it's time to move on."

5. Encourage optimism in others.

Pessimists secretly want optimists to fail. Because misery loves company, pessimists resent those who reject their negative spin. "Stop ignoring reality! This sucks!"

Optimists openly want pessimists to succeed. They know negative spin makes things worse, so they try to chide pessimists to cheer up. "Maybe it isn't as bad as you think."

Published on: Dec 9, 2014
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